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James Gilmour: A Courtship By Correspondence

by Belle M. Brain

James GilmourJames Gilmour's courtship was as out-of-the-ordinary as everything else about him. Yet, like all that he did, it bore the stamp of complete consecration to God.

When he sailed for China in 1870, a strong, manly young fellow of twenty-seven, he went without either a wife or a colleague. Yet it was a lonely task that awaited him—the reopening of the London Missionary Society's long suspended work in Mongolia and at times he was almost overwhelmed at the prospect.

"Companions I can scarcely hope to meet," he wrote before sailing, "and the feeling of being alone comes over me till I think of Christ and His blessed promise, 'Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.' No one who does not go away, leaving all and being alone, can feel the force of this promise. When I begin to feel my heart threatening to go down, I betake myself to this companionship, and, thank God, I have felt the blessedness of this promise rushing over me repeatedly when I knelt down and spoke to Jesus as a present companion, from whom I am sure to find sympathy. I have felt a tingle of delight thrilling over me as I felt His presence, and thought that wherever I may go He is still with me."

On the barren plains of Mongolia, the loneliness proved ever greater than he had anticipated. Christ was indeed an ever-present friend, but young Gilmour, though so intensely in earnest, was merry and full of fun, and craved human companionship. In August, 1870, when he began his first great journey among the Mongols, a strong feeling of aversion came over him to traveling alone in a region entirely unknown to him. An unexpected companion, in the person of a Russian merchant, relieved this somewhat, but at Kiachta, the southern frontier of Siberia, the loneliness became well-nigh unbearable.

"To-day I felt a good deal like Elijah in the wilderness," he wrote in his diary during a brief period of enforced inactivity. "He prayed that he might die. I wonder if I am telling the truth when I say that I felt drawn towards suicide. I take this opportunity of declaring strongly that on all occasions two missionaries should go together. I was not of this opinion a few weeks ago, but I had no idea how weak an individual I am. My eyes have filled with tears frequently these last few days in spite of myself. Oh! the intense loneliness of Christ's life, not a single one understood Him! He bore it. O Jesus, let me follow in thy steps!"

At Peking, his headquarters between trips, he had no home of his own, but lived in rented rooms with a native Chinese servant. His meals he took with a fellow-missionary, Mr. Edkins. Going to his home broke the monotony and helped not a little; nevertheless he was lonely and his life sorely lacking in comfort.

His two great needs were a wife and a colleague. The colleague he asked the Directors in London to send him. The wife he attempted to find for himself. A true son of Scotia, he proposed first to a Scotch girl—whether in person before he left home, or by letter from China, he has not divulged. But the Scotch girl said "No." He had asked her too late. She was already pledged to another.

His own efforts to find a wife being thus thwarted, Glimour turned to the Lord. "I then put myself," he says, "and the direction of this affair—I mean the finding of a wife—into God's hands, asking Him to look me out one, a good one, too."

And God did what he asked. In May, 1873, when Mr. Edkins returned to England, Gilmour lost his boarding-place. But he soon found another. Mr. Meech, an old college chum who had recently come to Peking with his bride, took him in.

In the old home in England, Mrs. Meech (née Miss Prankard, of London) had a young sister, Emily, who was inexpressibly dear to her. Coming in to his meals, Gilmour saw her picture, read extracts from her letters, and heard her praises sounded continuously. By and by he found himself so greatly attracted to the absent young lady that he wondered what it all meant. Could she be the bride God was going to give him!

Toward the close of the year, he told Mrs. Meech all about it and asked if he might correspond with her sister. She was delighted and gladly gave her consent. The prospect of having Emily with her in China filled her with joy, and she and her husband had already learned to love and trust Gilmour.

Gilmour was not slow to make use of the permission Mrs. Meech gave him. Early in January, 1874, he wrote to Miss Prankard, opening up a correspondence with her. Gilmour-like, the very first letter contained a proposal of marriage!

By the same mail he wrote to his parents in Scotland. "I have written and proposed to a girl in England," he said. "It is true I have never seen her, and I know very little about her; but what I do know is good. Her mother supports herself and daughter by keeping a school. One of the hindrances will be perhaps that the mother will not be willing to part with her daughter, as she is, no doubt, the life of the school. I don't know, so I have written and made the offer, and leave them to decide. If she cannot come, then there is no harm done. If she can arrange to come, then my hope is fulfilled. If the young lady says 'Yes,' she or her friends will no doubt write you, as I have asked them to do. You may think I am rash in writing to a girl I have never seen. If you say so, I may just say that I have something of the same feeling; but what am I to do? In addition I am very easy minded over it all, because I have exercised the best of my thoughts on the subject, and put the whole matter into the hands of God, asking Him, if it be best, to bring her, if it be not best, to keep her away, and He can manage the whole thing well."

Having posted these letters, Gilmour started on a long tour through Mongolia, and tried to forget all about it.

When Emily Prankard received his letter in London, she at once took the matter to God. She had never seen this would-be husband, but she had heard much about him from her sister in China and friends of his in the homeland. The spirit of missions was strong in her heart, and at length she wrote him that she would come to China and join him in his work for Mongolia.

Receiving one another on trust from the Lord, neither of the young people took long to decide. "The first letter I wrote her was to propose," says Gilmour, "And the first letter she wrote me was to accept—romantic enough!"

Owing to a delay in the mails, the announcement did not come to the old folks in Scotland through their son's letter as he had planned, but in a note from Miss Prankard's mother in London. "My parents were scared one day last year," Gilmour wrote after his marriage, "by receiving a letter from a lady in England, a lady whose name even they had not known before, stating that her daughter had decided to become my wife! Didn't it stir up the old people! My letter to them, posted at the same time, had been delayed in London."

It was a shock at first, but Gilmour's parents soon became reconciled to his engagement. Before sailing for China, Emily Prankard spent two weeks with them in Scotland, and so completely won their hearts that they wrote to their son that "though he had searched the country for a couple of years he could not have made a better choice."

Meanwhile Gilmour himself was quietly pursuing his work on the plans of Mongolia. On the way back in July, he thought much about the question he had asked six months before. Would there be an answer waiting for him? If so, what would it be be! At Kalgan he found a package of letters. One bore the London postmark and the hand-writing he had grown familiar with on Mrs. Meech's letters. It was from Emily Prankard, and her answer was, "Yes!"

"I proposed in January," he says, "went up to Mongolia in the spring, rode about on my camels till July, and came down to Kalgan to find that I was an accepted man!"

A short, but happy courtship by correspondence followed. "You will be glad to hear that I have had some delightful letters from Miss Prankard," he wrote to his mother in Scotland. "She has written me in the most unrestrained way concerning her spiritual hopes and condition, and though we have never seen each other, yet we know more of each other's inmost life and soul than, I am quite certain, most lovers know of each other even after long personal courtship. It is quite delightful to think that even now we can talk by letter with perfect unreserve, and I tell you this because I know you will be glad to hear of it. I knew she was a pious girl, else I would not have asked her to come out to be a missionary's wife, but she turns out better even than I thought, and I am not much afraid as to how we shall get on together."

Early in the autumn, Emily Prankard sailed for China, and in November, Gilmour and Mr. Meech went to Tien-tsin to meet her. For two weeks nothing was heard of the steamer, but at length, on Sabbath evening, November 29, word came that she was outside the bar, waiting for the tide to bring her up to the city. Next morning, at five o'clock, Gilmour and Meech boarded a steam launch and started down the river. About eight o'clock they met the steamer coming up, and Mr. Meech recognized Miss Prankard on deck. But the steamer did not stop, and poor Gilmour had to wait another three hours!

Emily Prankard's first view of her lover must have been something of a shock. "The morning was cold," says Mr. Meech, "and Gilmour was clad in an old overcoat which had seen much service in Siberia and had a woolen comforter round his neck, having more regard to warmth than appearance. We had to follow back to Tien-tsin, Gilmour being thought by those on board the steamer to be the engineer!"

But there was a charm about Gilmour that was irresistible, and, notwithstanding his unbecoming attire, Emily Prankard soon found him all she had hoped for. No one ever came within the sphere of his influence without learning to love him, and, divested of old coat and woolen comforter, he was a fine looking young fellow whom any girl might be proud to own as her lover. "There was an aspect of good humor about his face and a glance of his eye revealing any amount of fun and frolic," says one of his fellow-students. "Honesty, good nature, and true manliness were so stamped upon every feature and line of it, that you had only to see him to feel that he was one of God's noblest works, and to be drawn to him as by a magnetic influence. "

On Tuesday, December 1, Miss Prankard left for Peking, with Meech and Gilmour as escorts. On Thursday she reached the home of her sister, and on the following Tuesday the wedding took place. "I think I must have said 'I will' in a feeble voice," says Gilmour, "for my wife when her turn came sung out 'I will' in a voice that startled herself and me, and made it ominous how much will she was going to have in the matter!"

In a letter to his friend, Mr. Lovett, the bridegroom announced the wedding in true Gilmour-fashion as follows:

"I was married last week, Tuesday, December 8, [1874]!

"Mrs. Meech's sister is now Mrs. Gilmour. We never saw each other until a week before we were married, and my friends here drew long faces and howled at me for being rash. What if you don't like each other! How then? It is for life! As if I didn't know all this long ago!"

After a honeymoon of one week, Gilmour started out with Mr. Meech on a nine-days' tour into the country. Two days before Christmas he returned and settled down in Peking for a while to get acquainted with his wife.

She proved all he hoped for and more. To a Scotch friend, whose letter, warning him not to take an English girl for a wife, came after his marriage, he wrote, "About my wife: as I want you to know her, I introduce you to her. She is a jolly girl, as much, perhaps more, of a Christian and a Christian missionary than I am. ...The whole thing was gone about on the faith principle, and from its success, I am inclined to think more and more highly of the plan. Without any gammon, I am much happier than even in my day dreams I ever imagined I might be. It is not only me that my wife pleases, but she has gained golden opinions from most of the people who have met her among my friends and acquaintances in Scotland and China. You need not be the least bit shy of me or my English wife. She is a good lassie, any quantity better than me, and just as handy as a Scotch lass would have been. It was great fun for her to read your tirade about English wives and your warning about her. She is a jolly kind of body, and does not take offense, but I guess if she comes across you, she will shake you up a bit!"

Unusual as their courtship had been, their marriage proved one of the happiest on record. In the bride God gave him, Gilmour found not only a wife, but a colleague—the only one he was ever permitted to have. Hand in hand they worked for the Mongols, her zeal fully equal to his. Delicately nurtured though she had been, this refined English lady accompanied her husband on many a long, hard journey through Mongolia, not only to relieve his loneliness, but to do her share in winning the Mongols to Christ.

For eleven years she endured privations and faced dangers of no common sort with a heroism that has rarely been equaled. Then God took her home, and Gilmour was left with his motherless lads. But she had been a great help to him, and their union the one great joy of his twenty years' lonely, and difficult toil.

From Love Stories of Great Missionaries by Belle M. Brain. New York: Fleming H. Revell, ©1913.

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